Georgia secretary of state’s office completes first citizenship audit of voter rolls

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger

ATLANTA – The first citizenship audit of voter rolls in Georgia history has turned up 1,634 people who tried to register to vote but could not be verified as U.S. citizens.

The noncitizens identified in the audit conducted by the secretary of state’s office were placed into “pending citizenship” status and not allowed to vote.

“Ensuring that only citizens are voting in Georgia’s elections is key to upholding the integrity of the vote in Georgia,” Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Monday. “As liberal states and cities around the country are changing their laws to allow noncitizen voting, I will continue to take steps to ensure Georgia’s elections are executed with integrity. Leading the state’s first citizenship audit of the voter rolls is an important part of that effort.”

Fifteen U.S. cities – including New York City and San Francisco – allow noncitizens to vote in local elections. Most of those cities are in Maryland.

The audit consisted of gathering data from the state Department of Driver Services and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services through the federal agency’s Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) program.

In all, 2,258 voter registration applications are currently in “pending citizenship” status. The difference between the two numbers is because the secretary of state’s office was unable to obtain the required information on 624 noncitizens who were flagged by the DDS. Those 624 remain in “pending citizenship” status.

None of these individuals have cast ballots in Georgia elections.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

General Assembly passes ban on mask mandates for Georgia students

ATLANTA – Georgia school officials will not be allowed to require a student to wear a mask if his or her parents object under legislation that gained final passage in the state House of Representatives Friday.

The bill, which cleared the Republican-controlled chamber 93-52 along party lines, was introduced on behalf of Gov. Brian Kemp, who has fought against mask mandates imposed by local governments and school systems since the coronavirus pandemic struck Georgia two years ago.

“Parents are the best decision-makers when it comes to the health and education of their children,” said Rep. Lauren McDonald, R-Cumming, one of Kemp’s floor leaders in the House and the bill’s chief sponsor. “We need to begin to return to normal. This is the first step toward doing so.”

But House Democrats argued the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and now is not the time to loosen restrictions on mask wearing.

“The virus is here. It’s deadly,” said Rep. Roger Bruce, D-Atlanta. “People are still getting sick and having to go to the hospital.”

The “Unmask Georgia Students Act” passed the state Senate 32-19 on March 1, also along party lines. It now heads to Kemp’s desk for his signature.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

General Assembly doubling down on election reform

Voters wait in line at a precinct in Cobb County (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – Last year, Republicans pushing an election reform bill through the General Assembly argued they were restoring public trust in elections following allegations of voter fraud in Georgia in 2020.

Democrats charged the 2021 legislation amounted to voter suppression by Republicans determined to reverse Democratic gains, particularly the capture of the Peach State’s two U.S. Senate seats.

Now, the two sides are fighting the same battle over a follow-up bill the Republican-controlled Georgia House of Representatives passed along party lines earlier this month and sent to the state Senate.

“It’s ‘deja vu all over again,’ ” said Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, one of the fair-elections advocacy groups working with Democrats to oppose the measure.

House Bill 1464 has some provisions Common Cause Georgia and others have praised, including a provision requiring employers to give their workers time off to cast their ballots during the early voting period prior to elections. Current law limits the time-off mandate to voting on Election Day.

But legislative Democrats can’t get past what they see is the motivation behind the bill: allegations of widespread voter fraud lodged by then-President Donald Trump following the 2020 election and his attempts to overturn the results in Georgia and elsewhere.

“We’re continuing to enact laws based on the lies that led to the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol,” state Rep. David Dreyer, D-Atlanta, said March 15 during the House debate on the legislation.

Republicans have defended the bill as an effort to restore trust in elections by increasing security surrounding the voting process, including tightening up requirements for sealing and transferring custody of ballots.

“In our society, the election process should be the most secure thing we have,” said Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga.

But Democrats say that added security would come at the expense of a centralization of the elections process to the detriment of local elections offices.

“This bill will devastate local election administration,” said Rep. Miriam Paris, D-Macon. “The State Election Board will have the centralized power to decide what all 159 counties in Georgia need.”

The bill’s most contentious provision would give the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) “original jurisdiction” to investigate election complaints, meaning the agency wouldn’t have to wait to be called into a case by the State Election Board or the attorney general’s office.

“If they get tipped off that something’s going on, they could step right in,” Rep. Stan Gunter, R-Blairsville, chairman of the House Special Committee on Election Integrity, told members of the Senate Ethics Committee March 23.

Democrats argued involving the GBI likely would lead to a flurry of arrests, even in cases where the alleged offender is doing something he or she isn’t aware is a crime, such as collecting absentee ballots from friends or relatives to take to a drop box.

“When you consult a surgeon, you’re probably going to get surgery,” said Sen. Sally Harrell, D-Atlanta. “If you consult the GBI, you’re probably going to get a crime.”

“The GBI conducting voter fraud investigations will be used to intimidate Georgia voters and election workers,” added Rep. Derek Mallow, D-Savannah. “This is another attack on the right to vote.”

But Republicans said voters have nothing to fear from the GBI, which has been investigating election complaints for years when their help is requested.

“This would not be SWAT teams parachuting onto the grounds of the courthouse,” Gunter said. “They’re not going to be standing over voters. … I’m sure they will exercise discretion.”

“If you break the law, there will be due process before you could get arrested,” added Rep. James Burchett, R-Waycross, the bill’s chief sponsor.

The Senate Ethics Committee will hold a second hearing on the bill on Monday and likely vote on it later in the week.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia Senate passes $30.2 billion budget

ATLANTA – The Georgia Senate unanimously approved a fiscal 2023 state budget Friday that provides raises to teachers and state employees and restores state agencies to pre-pandemic spending levels.

The $30.2 billion spending plan, which the Georgia House of Representatives passed two weeks ago, annualizes $5,000 raises most state workers received in the fiscal 2022 mid-year budget Gov. Brian Kemp signed last week.

Georgia teachers would get a $2,000 raise, allowing Kemp to finish fulfilling the $5,000 increase he promised on the campaign trail four years ago. The General Assembly increased teachers’ pay by $3,000 in 2019.

The budget also would repeal the institutional fees the University System of Georgia began charging students during the Great Recession and would increase Medicaid coverage for low-income mothers in Georgia to a full year following the birth of their children, up from the current six months.

The governor and legislature can afford to be generous this year. State tax collections have been on the rise during most of the past year – despite the pandemic – resulting in a budget surplus of more than $4 billion.

“I am so thankful for the [taxpayers’] resilience during the pandemic, keeping Georgia open,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, told his Senate colleagues Friday.

Georgia also has received $4.8 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds through the American Rescue Plan.

Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler praised the budget for raising salaries and restoring budget cuts imposed on state agencies during the last two years.

But Butler, D-Stone Mountain, said lawmakers could do more for low-income Georgians by expanding Medicaid, creating a state-level Earned Income Tax Credit and boosting funding for education and health care, which she said remain underfunded despite the spending increases in the budget.

“There is a budget surplus that could be used to help those who need it most or shore up agencies that are struggling,” she said.

But Tillery injected a note of caution, citing the most recent report from the state Department of Revenue that showed tax receipts rose just 1% last month compared to February of last year. He said many spending increases Senate budget writers have proposed are for one-time items in order not to overcommit the General Assembly if the economy slows down.

“We tried not to spend every dollar we were sent … so next year we haven’t boxed ourselves in,” Tillery said. “As this sugar high is wearing off, the Senate will not be in a bad position.”

The budget likely will land next in a joint conference committee so House and Senate negotiators can resolve their differences and come up with a final version of the spending plan.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

COAM lobbyists balk at state tax hike

ATLANTA – Lobbyists representing Georgia’s coin-operated amusement machines (COAM) businesses objected Thursday to raising the state tax on the industry.

A Georgia Senate bill calling for increasing the share of COAM income that goes to the state from the current 10% to 30% did not survive last week’s Crossover Day deadline for bills to pass at least one legislative chamber. But an alternative COAM measure that cleared the state House of Representatives on Crossover Day is now before the Senate, and the tax hike could be amended onto it.

Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee, presented charts Thursday showing that $120 million in COAM revenue went to the state last year to support the HOPE Scholarships and pre-kindergarten programs, far less than the tax revenue for education generated by the Georgia Lottery.

Raising the tax on COAMs to 30% would have produced $360 million for education, the charts showed.

HOPE has suffered from a funding shortfall since 2011, when the General Assembly voted in a cost-cutting move to stop covering the full cost of tuition for most students. The percentage of coverage HOPE provides has fallen as low as 76%, Cowsert said.

While Gov. Brian Kemp’s fiscal 2023 budget proposal would increase HOPE coverage to 90% of tuition, the program still would be left with a $100 million shortfall, Cowsert said.

Other states tax their gaming machines at much higher rates than Georgia. Pennsylvania’s tax is at 52%, South Dakota’s is 50%, Illinois’ is 34% and Louisiana’s is 32.5%, according to one of the charts.

“If we were to get closer in line with other states, we might be able to close the [HOPE] shortfall,” Cowsert said.

But Les Schneider, a lobbyist representing the Georgia Amusement & Music Operators Association, said the figures on the charts did not account for the fees Georgia charges the licensees who own the machines and owners of the retail businesses where the machines are located.

“We pay more than any other COAM operation in the United States of America,” he said.

“Any attempt to raise the tax would be very detrimental, particularly to the small operators,” added Edward Lindsey, representing Norcross-based COAM supplier Lucky Bucks. “You will diminish capital investment in this state.”

The lobbyists supported the alternative bill that passed the House, which would leave the tax at 10% and offer COAM game winners non-cash redeemable gift cards.

Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, the House bill’s chief sponsor, said gift cards would discourage store owners from paying cash to prize winners, which is illegal in Georgia.

“This takes away any rationale for a merchant to pay out cash money,” he said.

Sheila Humberstone, representing the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores, called gift cards “the great equalizer” between store owners who cheat and those who are honest.

“Our members are at a competitive disadvantage when the convenience store across the street pays out cash,” she said.

The Senate committee is expected to vote on the House bill next week.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.